Photo: Margaret Middleton, Columbus House CEO // Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer

Last Friday, the Connecticut State Appropriations Committee held a public hearing for S.B. 340 — a bill legislators hope will adjust funding for homelessness service providers in a manner that more accurately reflects their work and number of staff.

Currently, organizations that provide homelessness or housing assistance services receive a set amount of funding from the state per year, in accordance with past allotments. This funding model, which does not take non-fixed expenses into consideration, has left nonprofits across the state struggling financially. 

New Haven-based nonprofits Columbus House, Liberty Community Services and New Reach have had a central role in creating S.B. 340 and advocating for its passage. At last week’s hearing, about 25 nonprofit leaders and staff delivered testimony in support of the bill.

“This pandemic has really aimed a vivid spotlight on the underfunding issues for our sector within the nonprofit world,” said Jim Pettinelli, executive director of New Haven homelessness service nonprofit Liberty Community Services. “The time has come to really promote a change, and this change is taking the form of S.B. 340.”

Pettinelli explained that for over 10 years, homelessness service providers have been “flat funded” by the state government, receiving a fixed set amount annually. But, Pettinelli said, many homelessness service providers have expanded their programs over time, hiring more staff and trying to provide more comprehensive and long-term services to meet the needs of their clients. Due to inflation and increased costs over time, this model has equated to a “dramatic” decrease in state support over the past decade, according to Pettinelli.

Margaret Middleton, CEO of New Haven-based homelessness service provider Columbus House, told the News that a flat funding model does not reflect the quantity of work that nonprofits are doing. She told the News that funding amounts for these groups should take into account “how many people we serve and the different ways that we serve them.”

Current funding models have forced organizations to rely predominantly on philanthropy, which Pettinelli characterizes as uncertain and fluctuating.

“Housing keeps people safe and should be considered more like a medical intervention — especially when we have things like pandemics — than as a nice thing to do,” said Sarah Fox, director of policy for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, or CCEH, a statewide coalition of homelessness service nonprofits. “The fact that we’ve been subsisting on a charity model means that we have frontline providers who do not have the resources and the critical infrastructure that they need to meet demands as part of our state’s emergency response system.”

According to Fox, the idea for S.B. 340 emerged out of CCEH meetings in late December and January, which were held in anticipation of the new legislative session. A group that included leaders of CCEH, Liberty Community Services, New Reach and Columbus House drafted a concept paper for the bill.

As the bill made its way to the Appropriations Committee, these groups gathered testimonies and began advocacy efforts. This Tuesday, Columbus House invited legislators to a public event at a warming center in Middletown, hoping to gain support for S.B. 340 by demonstrating how emergency federal COVID-19 funds have allowed the organization to improve their services.

The CCEH is currently running a social media campaign promoting S.B. 340 titled “#IamEssential,” with the tagline “Fund The Frontlines.” The campaign focuses on how frontline homelessness service providers are not receiving adequate compensation for their labor, despite continuing to serve as essential workers amid the pandemic.

S.B. 340, if passed, would ensure that state funding for homelessness nonprofits would be adjusted to allow them to “pay living wages, overtime, hazard pay and benefits for front-line staff.”

Fox told the News that due to lack of sufficient funding across the state, some of the on-the-ground workers at shelters are at risk of falling into homelessness themselves.

“Through the funding we receive, we’re not able to adequately support our staff and provide them with the wages and the benefits that really reflect the work that they deliver as professionals,” Pettinelli said. “For many organizations … predominantly people of color are in those jobs. Once again, it’s a reflection of our society’s inability to respond effectively to inequity within the system.”

At the public hearing for S.B. 340, Middleton, Fox and New Reach’s Kellyann Day were among the many nonprofit leaders who provided testimony. However, testimonies in support of the bill were also given by frontline staff, both in writing and in person. Middleton said that amplifying these voices at the hearing was a priority.

Middleton, Pettinelli and Fox all emphasized that this bill is just one piece in a greater effort to ensure funding for homelessness services.

“I find myself and numerous others in this line of work putting in many hours of overtime to make ends meet,” wrote Andre Rhodes, direct care staff at a homeless shelter in Hartford, in his testimony. “We directly risk our lives day in and day out dealing with people who have tested positive for COVID-19, and do without regret. So please if there is anything that can be done to help ease the burden on us, I ask that it be done.”

The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness is made up of 64 homelessness service providers from across the state.

Sylvan Lebrun | sylvan.lebrun@yale.edu

SYLVAN LEBRUN
Sylvan Lebrun covers local nonprofits and social services. She is a first-year in Pauli Murray College majoring in English.